Review - The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell
David Mitchell has to be one of my favourite authors at the moment. Cloud Atlas, Jacob De Zoet, Black Swan Green, Number 9 Dream – they’re all incredible. I was thus expecting great things from The Bone Clocks and, in many ways, it delivered. It’s not quite as descriptive as these other works but since the book is written in first person present, long descriptions are sacrificed for a more authentic character voice, which, in my opinion, was a very good move for the most part. I’ve always found that too many authors get around the apparent limitations of the first person voice by having a highly intellectual, self-analytical character who would seemingly be able to deal with all the necessary roles of a traditional narrator (taking on exposition, theme, description etc) but it often simply ends up with the character channelling the author’s own voice. Contemporary fiction is replete with such characters.
What Mitchell does, however, is give you a fairly everyday teenage girl, Holly Sykes, who is experiencing fairly everyday teenage issues. He does a superb job at getting you into her head and I found myself engrossed from the start. Next, we do actually get a more intellectual, self-analytical character but Mitchell gives him a little twist and he contrasts this character so well against Holly Sykes that, again, he became a compelling read. Our third protagonist is a writer but Mitchell presents this section it in a meta-fictionary type of way and you can tell he's parodying authors who use writers as a protagonist. However, the novel does start to digress somewhat at this point. The things this character comments on and the remarks he makes about his critics makes you think that Mitchell’s launching a sort-of pre-emptive strike on what his own critics might say about The Bone Clocks, and, to be honest, it's a little bit distracting. Still, for the main part, the story is engaging here and I definitely found the parts on writing to be an interesting read in and of themselves. All in all, this accounts for about 70% of the book and is quality stuff. However, bisecting this is a fantasy story – or "fantasy realism" if you prefer – and it's just a bit silly in places. Some bits read like a bad sci-fi comic, e.g. "Arkadt and I fire back, our Deep Stream projectiles passing from our palm-chakras through Unalaq's shield. Those that hit their targets will hiatus, sedate or redact an Anchorite out of the battle, but Shaded Way psychoincendiaries will fry our flesh" - that's from the middle of a "battle scene" in the book. To be fair, it was the most bizarre example I found but there's lots of made-up "fantasy vocab" used for the purposes of description. I think the problem was that by keeping the story in the 1st person (and even worse by keeping it in the present tense) Mitchell had to use the voice of the characters doing these "magical" acts. As a result, we get words like “psychoincendiaries” rather than the rich description a narrator could have employed of just exactly what this phenomena would look like. Of course, you could argue that this part of the story is another example of parody, this time of the portrayal of fantasy/sci-fi narratives but parody becomes annoying when it gets in the way of your overall enjoyment of what is otherwise a very gripping story. So, overall, a well-written and engaging story with an excellent cast of characters but whilst opting for the first person present tense led to a highly gripping drama, it proved to be the undoing of the magical realism parts, which, unfortunately, had the responsibility of holding the narrative as a whole together.